After 50 years of leading the movement to bring African and African American cities together in something pretty close to a worldwide network of sister cities, Tuskegee’s legendary “Mayor” Johnny Ford simply beams as he declares that he is about to witness the union of the perfect pair of sister cities, something he calls the “crown jewel”.
The city of Tuskegee and Mbuji-Mayi, the second largest city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), he says, are developing an official sister city bond that will last into perpetuity.
Both sides have confirmed the relationship, said Ford, one of the several inspirations and guiding spirits behind the deal. Officials of the two cities are now just waiting for the final details to be worked out, he said.
Unfamiliar as the name and pronunciation of Mbuji-Mayi (“Em-BOO-gee MY-ee” is a close approximation) might be to the 99.99 percent of Americans who’ve never had the occasion to travel to Kasai-Oriental Province in south-central DRC, Mbuji Mayi is no waif or Orphan Annie among African cities. She contains the largest number of natural and industrial diamond fields in the entire world, according to UN and World Bank reports. And thanks to a strong and independent – some say “authoritarian” – hand that guided her through the bloody wars and vicious plunder that nearly destroyed the rest of the Congo in the decades following the 1960 assassination of Patrice Lumumba, Mbuji-Mayi just kept growing stronger, and richer and continued to be one of the Congo’s most governable territories.
At the moment, a number of interested parties on both sides of the Atlantic are waiting with bated breath for the cementing of the bond of sisterhood between Mbuji-Mayi and world-famous and technologically adept Tuskegee City and University.
Current Tuskegee Mayor Lawrence Haygood indicated that the city council would meet during the first week of September “to begin to formalize the framework” for developing the proposed partnership between Tuskegee and Mbuji-Mayi.
“We share an interest in collaborating to share and exchange economic, social, and cultural information,” he said.
Although no details were spelled out in Haygood’s letter to Eddy Mundela Kanku, the Mbuji-Mayi representative, the mayor wrote that he was hopeful of sharing and exchanging “economic, social, and cultural information as well as expertise to benefit our citizens and economic opportunities.”
The area around Mbuji-Mayi is one of the richest sources of mineral wealth in the world. In the 1950s, the Mbuji-Mayi area had the world’s most important industrial diamond deposits, and governance of the city was closely coordinated with the government-owned mining company, MIBA.
The population of Mbuji Mayi today is estimated at somewhere between 2 million and 3 million.
Ford envisioned a myriad of possible benefits for Africa and America deriving from the collaboration.
“This is a major strategic move,” Ford said via a telephone interview Monday afternoon. “Mbuji-Mayi is in the home province of Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi. And the president is also the current chairperson of the African Union. Just consider the potential of this city with all of its resources partnering with Tuskegee as a sister city. I consider this to be the jewel in our crown.
“I’m truly humbled by all of this,” said Ford. “This is the kind of linkage I’ve been preaching all these years. And it is so satisfying to see so many of our people now recognizing the importance of doing it.”
ALWAYS THE MAYOR
Ford, the mayor of Tuskegee for eight nonconsecutive terms that began in 1972, is still addressed as Mayor by nearly everyone who has known him over the years, even though he went on to serve in the state legislature and is currently a member of the Tuskegee City Council.
“My name is Mayor after 50 years of being known as such,” he said. “Once the mayor, always the mayor. Even when I served in the legislature.”
Ford was the co-founder of the National Conference of Black Mayors. He is also the “Founder-for-Life” of the World Conference of Mayors, which was established in December 1984.
The seven keys of the World Conference agenda, Ford said, were Trust, Trade, Tourism, Technology Transfer, Twin Cities, Treasury, and Training.
“Those were the seven goals that we established,” he said. “Part of our current plan is to develop a Tuskegee University scholarship and education exchange program for students from the DRC. The focus here is in three areas of expertise at Tuskegee – Agriculture, Aviation ,and Engineering.
“We don’t just want a relationship on paper,” Ford says. “We want something meaningful to come out of this, such as the transfer of technology, to generate exporting and importing opportunities for businesspeople. To encourage tourism between our two cities, along with the education and student exchanges. Tuskegee has students from 90 different countries, and we are particularly interested in having more students from Africa, and the DRC in particular. So, we’re just excited about it.”
“We most definitely are looking forward to the cultural exchanges,” Ford said. “It is the culture and the rich ancestral heritage of Africa that inspires and motivates us. It is the cultural exchange that happens most between sister cities. When I first entered into a sister city relationship with Banjul in 1977, one of the first things we did was to host a cultural exchange, where they brought over their musicians, dancers, artists, and their works. We had all that on display at city hall and at Tuskegee University. The cultural exchange is what really cements the relationship.”
Tuskegee was the first predominantly African American city to reach out and establish a sister city relationship, Ford says. It started in 1977 with Banjul, Gambia, the ancestral home of Alex Haley.
“In 1977,” Ford said, “I had gone to a meeting of the National League of Cities, and they had a big sign up that read, ‘Wanted, American cities to twin with African cities.’ And when I saw that I jumped on it right away and called Alex Haley who had just been down to Tuskegee to give a lecture. Alex Haley and his brother George Haley, who had become ambassador to the Gambia, agreed that Tuskegee and Banjul should enter into a sister city relationship.
“We gained funding from Sister Cities International and the U.S. State Department for me to put together a delegation to take to Banjul to see what their problem areas were.”
Ford said he organized a team of experts from among the Tuskegee faculty and staff from the school of agriculture, the school of architecture, the school of business, along with a community developer.
“When we got back, we sent a proposal to the World Bank and USAID and we got funding to help Banjul redevelop and improve their central marketplace, a necessary improvement since the marketplace is the center of the economy of African towns. About a year later I returned to Banjul to see the work that had been done. The mayor of Banjul, George Mundy, and I agreed that it made a lot of sense for African and African American mayors to engage in a sister city relationship.”
WORLD CONFERENCE OF MAYORS
This meeting with Mundy led to Ford’s idea for the World Conference of Mayors that convened in Monrovia, Liberia in December 1984.
“We had mayors from 40 countries who came for that initial meeting. From that first meeting in Monrovia in 1984, to the next year in the Bahamas, then to Chicago in 1986 hosted by the late Mayor Harold Washington. Then to the People’s Republic of China. Following that, we met in Paris.”
Ford said that the purpose of the Sister City program is to build a bridge of goodwill between two cities. And once that official relationship is established, a great deal can come out of it; such things as trade opportunities, importing and exporting, and helping businesspeople to establish a relationship. Trade and Technology Transfer are expected. Cities learn from each other. So, they share or transfer their technology and resources.
“Tourism is another thing that we look forward to,” Ford said. “We encourage our people from the U.S. and Europe to travel to Africa for tourism and historic purposes as well as for training.”
The World Conference of Mayors is still alive and well, Ford says. The current president is Ed Jones of Grambling, LA. Ford holds the honorary title of “Founder-for-Life.”
“The World Conference of Mayors is more important than ever before,” he says. “Part of our goal is to encourage the United States to provide more assistance to Africa and to invest in Africa.
“We know about the DRC’s vast resources – diamonds, copper, cobalt. But you need to extend an olive branch and be willing to invest first and let them know that you’re not just interested in taking advantage of their resources. We genuinely want to be able to help them help themselves. To help them make good business decisions. And I am hopeful that a lot of those decisions and deals will be made with African Americans.”